Meet three inspiring Syrian women studying in Irish Universities
This International Women's Day, we speak to three women who have overcome the odds and many obstacles in order to pursue their education in Ireland
Ghazal- Future doctor
After the upheaval of leaving Syria in 2015, Ghazal faced further disruption in her final year of secondary school in Ireland. Moving around the country as her family awaited a decision on their asylum claim, she attended four different schools.
“We went to a school in Crumlin for 3 or 4 weeks, I always say that I owe them so much. They sat us down and they went through the system bit by bit, because it was so new. We didn’t know anything.
Then in Kilmacud, they were the most supportive people ever. I remember how teachers had no break times, they had Ghazal time.”
One of the subjects she was least confident in was French, having only just started. Getting through her higher-level oral was a particular challenge.
“I talked about Syrian refugees in my document, and about people crossing the sea because they needed somewhere safe. The examiner teared up and I started crying and it was really emotional. But I really got through it, I got through the whole thing, I was so proud of myself.”
There were 6.7 million Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers worldwide (as of June 2020), in over 130 countries. The majority, some 80 per cent, living in the Middle East. The conflict has continued for almost ten years now. Aside from the many killed, others have been robbed of their rights, their safety, their lives and for people like Ghazal and her family - their home.
On finishing her leaving certificate, Ghazal received a scholarship for Science at University College Dublin. The Irish ‘Free Fees’ scheme is usually unavailable to people who have not been resident in the country for three years. But because of the scholarship, Ghazal did not have to pay the full international course fees she was subject to.
After completing her science degree, she turned her attention to her next step: Medicine. “It started out with that a lot of factors, I love helping people, I liked watching ER, I loved studying, I loved the human body.”
After three attempts at the medical admissions test, Ghazal got accepted to post graduate medicine in University College Cork.
Well into her first year there she says, “I’m so happy I’m in Cork at the moment, I’m living the dream finally.”
Covid-19 has affected her college experience, as it has for many students in Ireland.
“We don’t meet as much. I am always at home or in the library with a mask on.”
But she insists the college is taking good care of them.
“They do such an amazing job in making you feel that you should not stress. They go above and beyond.”
Ghazal is living by herself for the first time and like so many people, misses her family. Though this is not an unfamiliar feeling for her, she also misses Syria dearly.
Lana- Future lawyer
Lana always knew she wanted to be a lawyer. “I was always told that I argue and debate like a lawyer, especially with my parents. My dad always said that he saw me as a lawyer.”
Eight years after coming to Ireland, Lana is proud to be studying Law in Trinity College Dublin.
“Getting here, so far, I felt like there were so many obstacles in my way, especially leaving Syria and everything. The odds weren’t really in my favor”.
Like other final year students in Ireland, Lana’s Leaving Certificate was disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. She had chosen to repeat the examination and confessed that the second time was easier, but the pandemic made her question her choice.
“Lockdown happened during my Leaving Cert and then you go through that whole process of: did I take the wrong choice, should I have accepted my course that I got last year?”
Initially she kept the information to herself, but now she insists the extra year is part of who she is.
“I felt like I should keep it as a secret, but I just came to the realization that that’s a part of me and that’s completely fine, there’s nothing wrong with repeating. I’m where I’m meant to be right now and that’s all that matters.”
The importance of Lana’s relationship with her father is clear when she talks about her motivation to keep going.
“He always kept that big smile on his face. Repeating the Leaving Certificate, I felt like quitting and it got really hard and then my dad was like, ‘If I can come here at an older age, learn a completely new language and just become a functioning member of society then nothing can stop you’.”
Now in her first year of law school, her experience is far from typical due to the pandemic.
“It gets really hard, like especially as first years we all have this anger about how we were robbed out of our freshers experience. Considering the fact that I repeated the Leaving Cert, I was even more excited than your average student to get into college.”
Despite this, she is enjoying the course and looks forward to getting to visit the campus.
“It isn’t something like Suits or How to Get Away With Murder, but it's still quite enjoyable”.
Lana’s story is one of hard work, determination and resilience.
After the pandemic Lana is hoping that we will remember we need to take care of each other, she wants a future that benefits everybody.
“After the Black Lives Matter movement, seeing everyone being so aware of current political events around the world and everyone completely supporting these events wholeheartedly. I think that gives hope for the future, for a better future for everyone.”
Safa- Future scientist
Covid-19 has forced us all to remember what is important - family, community, hope. Safa and her family were reminded of this years ago when they were forced to flee Syria because of the conflict.
“Whatever money you do have, it might go in one moment. Whatever things you have, like houses, farms, cars in one moment might go. But what you will learn will never go.”
The family spent three years in Lebanon, where Safa’s family fled because of the war.
She was determined to keep up her education, so she enrolled in a nursing course, and got a job to help her family financially.
“I had to help even my family to live there. It was really really hard times because it’s very very expensive to live in Lebanon."
Safa often worked night shifts before going to her classes without sleep the next morning.
“When you are in a situation like that you have to choose, either being stressed and depressed or to fight. So, I decided to fight.”
After a successful application by her brother for family reunification, Safa and her family arrived in Ireland in 2017.
“Everything is green and the people, they are very very lovely. Irish people are always smiling, saying hello. Even we met people and when they saw us they said first As-salamu alaykum! They made us feel that we are welcome.”
Being with family is very important to Safa, after the time they spent apart.
“I just spend time with my family, it is the most happy thing we do as a family, when we sit together and chat; what we have done, what we are doing, all that stuff.”
Only 3 per cent of refugees globally are enrolled in any form of tertiary education, compared to 37 per cent of their non-refugee counterparts. Post pandemic, The Malala Fund has estimated that half of all refugee girls in school will not return when classrooms reopen in September.
Despite the difficulties she has faced, Safa has not given up on her dreams.
“It was my dream since I was young to do pharmacy. When I came here to Ireland I found that it’s a new chance for me and it might be the last, to do what I’m passionate about.”
Safa began by completing a diploma at Whitehall College, Dublin, before receiving a scholarship to complete a foundational year in University College Dublin.
Now she is in first year of science in UCD, with the hope of specializing in pharmacology. “To be at this point, it's an achievement for me. I haven't given up, I tried always to do something and I’m happy with what I did. I did the best I could at every stage”.
Covid-19 has changed her experience of university. She misses the practical elements of laboratory work, but not the two-hour commute to UCD.
“I’d like to finish my studies and pay back to Ireland by contributing to this society. I also hope to go back to Syria one day and help in building it back. I think that’s a dream of every Syrian.”